More on Living and Working in Japan

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 4 Jun 1994 22:27:39 JST

Non-Japanese who live and work in Japan often complain about how cold the
Japanese seem to foreigners. To my wife Ruth I owe the observation that this
may be the result of the purest of cultural misunderstandings. In the USA
(where we were born) and in Taiwan (where we did fieldwork) newcomers to
a group are immediately welcomed by those who already belong. In Japan the
custom is precisely the opposite: the newcomer is expected to take the
initiative in introducing him(or her)self. Kindergarten children already
know the rule. If a group of children are playing together and another child
wants to join the group, the latter asks "May I play." When moving into a
new neighborhood, the newcomers are expected to visit their neighbors to
introduce themselves and offer small gifts. Until they do, they are
socially non-existent. Newcomers to schools and companies are always required
to provide a formal self-introduction at parties held to welcome them.
Foreigners who fail to conform to these customs find themselves ignored and
too quickly conclude that Japanese are unwilling to get to know them. On
their side the Japanese see foreigners who fail to introduce themselves as
not wanting to form a relationship. Each sees the other as hard to get to

In our experience the best way to get to know Japanese is to start with a
self-introduction and then ask a favor, which automatically puts you in the
debt of the person you introduce yourself to. The results can be gratifying.
Ruth's introducing herself to the mothers of other kindergarten-aged children
led immediately to our daughter's being enrolled in the local kindergarten
and ultimately to Ruth's serving a regular turn as a member of the local
self-government association. It was around that time that as she was walking
down the hill behind our apartment one day, she encountered two small boys,
one of whom was a neighbor, the other a visitor who didn't know her. The
visitor said,"Gaijin da," i.e., "a foreigner." The neighbor boy corrected
him: "Gaijin ja nai. Kei-chan no obasan desu." Which is to say, "She's not
a foreigner. She's Katie's mom."

John McCreery (TWICS.COM)